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Diversifying a Historically White Space: Talking with Phil Lewis

A native to the Pacific Northwest and longtime friend of the brand, we connected with Phil as this summer's Black Lives Matter racial justice revolution – and white people's awakening to systemic racial inequality – took root. In today's Weekend Agenda, Phil shares his perspective on diversifying the outdoors and pursuing equity in a space that has historically and systemically been white-centered. 

We invite you to learn from Phil and use our conversation, as well as the questions Phil poses, while examining how you can be a fiercer advocate for Black people in your own community. Continue to follow Phil's outdoor adventures and advocacy efforts on his Instagram.

MiiR | Hi Phil – we'd love for you to take a moment to tell us about yourself.

Phil | I grew up in Puyallup WA, graduated from UW in 2017, (go Dawgs!) and currently serve as the High School Director at University Presbyterian Church. When I am not working, spending time outdoors or hanging out with my wife, you can most likely find me wrapped up in a good book with a Seattle cold brew in hand. Reading has always been an opportunity for me to be mentored by the stories and wisdom of the storyteller, no matter who that might be. 

M | What are your passions, and how does that come through in the work that you do?

P | My overarching passion comes through investing in high school students and seeing them live into the fullness of who God has created them to be. I also especially love making space for Black youth to experience the gift that is the outdoors. This all comes together in the calling I received to lead and be led by this next generation. I believe the youth really are the truth and they’re going to bring about the change that we so desperately need but have yet to see in our world. 

Phil Lewis in the outdoors

M | You’re born and raised in the greater Seattle area, living in Seattle with your wife now – how have you seen Seattle change?

P | Over the last four years it has been interesting to see how Seattle has changed. Even in the last few years due to big business and gentrification, many communities of color – specifically the Black community – has been pushed farther south or completely out of Seattle. The price of homes has skyrocketed and now only those that are financially wealthy can afford to buy a home or even rent an apartment in Seattle proper.

M | How did your passion for getting outside and enjoying the PNW take root and foster? Did you grow up spending time in nature?

P | Growing up, almost every night, rain or shine, my parents took my brother and I to the Auburn Game Farm Park to play in the fields, watch the local teams playing or play in the forest. It was my neighborhood park that sparked the passion I carry today for being in the outdoors. Each school break, my parents would take us down to Canon Beach on the Oregon coast and we would spend time playing in the sand or walking around the forests by the beach. It was the intentional time and space that my parents carved out for us that cultivated a spark that became a flame for being outside in my early 20’s.

Phil Lewis in the outdoorsPhil Lewis in the outdoors

M | As you were growing up, what has been your experience as a Black person recreating outdoors? What didn’t you notice?

P | I realized early on that there were few others in outdoor spaces that looked like me. As I learned more about why that might be, I learned of the many systemic and underlying reasons. I learned about racialized violence in the outdoors, how most National Parks in the not so distant past were segregated, and how many had actively racist "founders."

Even in my own experience backpacking, I’ve encountered a complete stranger asking my white friend if me and my Filipino friend if we were the “hired help” for his expedition. I didn’t fully notice until just last year the full breadth of the emerging Black community that loves recreating outdoors and those who are advocating for justice in many spaces in the outdoor industry. These voices have encouraged me to continue to pursue joy and life in its fullness through the gift of nature, regardless of the voices that tell me otherwise. 

M | Through dialogue and awareness with the Black Lives Matter movement, white people are realizing how white-centered the outdoors is; how did and do you currently see / experience that? 

P | You don’t have to look hard as a Black person to see an outdoor culture that is centered around whiteness. The pervasive nature of whiteness shows up in many ways, from the advertisements you see for outdoor gear, to the majority presence of white male ambassadors. Even the baseline price of safety gear or a national park pass reflects a socio-economic lifestyle that most identifies with white affluence and white people.

As a Black person, I experience it every time I get outside to hike. The many covert and even overtly racist encounters I’ve come to know in outdoor spaces have consistently reminded me that I am around people that believe I simply do not belong. This is a lie that every Black person knows all too well, and it’s a lie from the devil himself if I may take us to church for a second.

Phil Lewis outdoors on hike

M | How do you see institutions, organizations, and brands uphold white supremacy about Black people spending time in nature? How do you see these same institutions beginning to take steps in dismantling white supremacy?

P | Like I mentioned before, I see a pattern in the demographics and stories that are repetitively centered. When you continue to elevate white folks as the face and voice of the outdoor industry, you are upholding white supremacy. Internal dominance is telling and re-telling a narrative about what the face of the outdoors looks like and who should have access to the land. The general refusal to tell the true history of how National Parks came to exist, who the first nation people are, and how the stealing of land is an ever present trauma for Indigenous peoples are all a large part of what it currently looks like to uphold white-centered narratives in the outdoor industry.

However, I’m glad to see that some organizations are focusing on representation in their marketing campaigns and are choosing to elevate the voices of Black and indigenous folks in the outdoor community. I also see partnerships being developed between Black led organizations that are leading to these outdoor companies and institutions re-allocating funds to support these organizations and be led by them. These are small but crucial steps towards creating a better outdoor space that provides pockets of true rest and belonging for all. 

Phil Lewis in the outdoors

M | What are ways that white people can actively uncenter white people from the outdoors?

P | Begin the work of unlearning years of history and formation that embraces white supremacy. As you observe your history and media intake, ask yourself why certain narratives are told a certain way and others are not.

Who are the story tellers that you notice that are given the most power and who are not given agency to tell their own story? Elevate those untold stories and the true history that has been wiped away. It is important to learn from and elevate Black and Indigenous leadership.

Tell your favorite outdoor brands to support, honor and be led by Black and Indigenous-led organizations. Ask them to re-examine their board of directors and diversify their leadership. They should invite Black and Indigenous outdoor community members to be paid board members. They should also advocate for more diverse and equitable ambassador programs that financially supports and invites Black and brown ambassadors into the decision-making process of marketing campaigns and events that represent the company and its community. 

M | What do you believe needs to happen for true, sustaining, and equitable change to occur to ensure that the outdoors are more inclusive for Black people? Both in your local community and beyond?

P | I believe sustainable and equitable change begins by honestly addressing white supremacy inside of ourselves, in our families, our wider community and in our nation. We need to address white supremacy in its fullness. Then, and only then will we honestly see the ways in which we have been deeply formed by whiteness. If white people are seeking to hold others accountable but are not willing to be held accountable themselves, that in and of itself is white supremacy at play.

It is through white people educating themselves and embracing a lifestyle not just a moment that is actively anti-racist that they begin to go from allies to co-conspirators. White people begin to truly love the Black community because they are willing to risk it all to liberate their Black neighbors. You begin to vote differently, spend your money differently and ask more holistic questions that don’t center your comfort but your neighbor’s liberation.

No pride, privilege or policy should keep white people from supporting, speaking up and advocating for the Black community because my liberation is tied to yours. If I am not free, you are not free.

M | Anything else you wish to share?

P | Do not forget about seeking justice for Breonna Taylor. Continue to send emails, phone calls and letters to the Attorney General, Mayor, Governor and Chief of police in Louisville, Kentucky. Make a point to support and be led by your local Black and brown grassroots organizers and organizations that have in the area been doing the work before it got time on the news. We are in the middle of a civil rights movement; don’t let fear or your comfort keep you from participating in the work of justice. If you are wondering what you would have done during the civil rights movement in the 60’s, look at your current beliefs and actions today.

Take action:
Sign a petition with demanding that no-knock warrants get banned nation-wide.

Sign a petition with the Grassroots Law Project adding your name to the call on every state to immediately stop more murders like Breonna Taylor’s.

Sign a petition with Fight For Breonna calling for policy around transparent investigation process due to law enforcement misconduct, and more.

    Phil Lewis in the outdoors

    All images by our dear and remarkable friend, Wil Claussen.

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